Homeless Bird

Homeless Bird

by Gloria Whelan

Paperback(1ST HARPER)

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The National Book Award-winning novel about one remarkable young woman who dares to defy fate, perfect for readers who enjoyed A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park or Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.

Like many girls her age in India, thirteen-year-old Koly faces her arranged marriage with hope and courage. But Koly's story takes a terrible turn when in the wake of the ceremony, she discovers she's been horribly misled—her life has been sold for a dowry. Can she forge her own future, even in the face of time-worn tradition? 

Perfect for schools and classrooms, this universally acclaimed, bestselling, and award-winning novel by master of historical fiction Gloria Whelan is a gripping tale of hope that will transport readers of all ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780064408196
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/21/2001
Edition description: 1ST HARPER
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 55,504
Product dimensions: 7.58(w) x 5.08(h) x 0.41(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Gloria Whelan is the bestselling author of many novels for young readers, including Homeless Bird, winner of the National Book Award; Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect; Angel on the Square; Burying the Sun; Once on This Island, winner of the Great Lakes Book Award; and Return to the Island. She lives in the woods of northern Michigan.

Read an Excerpt


"Koly, you are thirteen and growing every day," Maa said to me. "It's time for you to have a husband." I knew why. There were days when my maa took only a bit of rice for herself so that the rest of us -- my baap, my brothers, and I -- might have more. "It's one of my days to fast," she would say, as if it were a holy thing, but I knew it was because there was not enough food to go around. The day I left home, there would be a little more for everyone else. I had known the day was coming, but the regret I saw in Maa's eyes made me tremble.

My baap, like all fathers with a daughter to marry off, had to find a dowry for me. "It will be no easy task," he said with a sigh. Baap was a scribe. He sat all day in his marketplace stall hoping to make a few rupees by writing letters for those who did not know how to write their own. His customers had little money. Often from the goodness of his heart Baap would write the letter for only a rupee or two. When I was a small girl, he would sometimes let me stand beside him. I watched as the spoken words were written down to become like caged birds, caught forever by my clever baap.

When they learned Maa and Baap were looking for a husband for me, my two brothers began to tease me. My older brother, Gopal, said, "Koly, when you have a husband, you will have to do as he tells you. You won't sit and daydream as you do now."

My younger brother, Ram, whom I always beat at card games, said, "When you play cards with your husband, you'll have to lose every time."

My brothers went to the boys' school in our village. Though there was a school for girls, I did not go there. I had begged to go, promising I would get up early and stay up late to do my work, but Maa said school was a waste for girls. "It will be of no use to you after you are married. The money for books and school fees is better put toward your dowry, so that we may find you a suitable husband."

When I stole looks into my brothers' books, I saw secrets in the characters I could not puzzle out. When I begged them to teach me the secrets, they laughed at me. Gopal complained, "I have to sit in a hot schoolroom all day and have my knuckles rapped if I look out the window. You are the lucky one."

Ram said, "When a girl learns to read, her hair falls out, her eyes cross, and no man will look at her."

Still, I turned over the pages of my brothers' books. When Maa sent me into the village for some errand, I lingered under the windows of the school to listen to the students saying their lessons aloud. But the lessons were not like measles. I did not catch them.

My maa had no use for books. When she was not taking care of the house, she spent her time embroidering. Like her maa before her, and her maa, and as far back as anyone could remember, the women in our family embroidered. All their thoughts and dreams went into their work. Maa embroidered the borders for saris sold in our marketplace. One sari might take many weeks, for a sari stretched all the way across the room. Because it took so long, each sari became a part of our lives. As soon as I could work with a needle, I was allowed to stitch simple designs. As I grew older, Maa gave me peacocks and ducks to embroider. When the border was finished, Maa took the sari to the marketplace. Then there would be rupees to spare in the house.

Now Maa sat with a length of red muslin for my wedding sari on her lap. Because he valued her work, the shopkeeper had sold the sari to Maa for a good price. She was embroidering a border of lotus flowers, a proper border for a wedding sari, because the lotus pod's many seeds are scattered to the wind, suggesting wealth and plenty.

Relatives and friends began to search for a bridegroom. A part of me hoped they would be successful and that someone wanted me. A part of me hoped that no one in the world would want me enough to take me away from my home and my maa and baap and brothers. I knew that after my marriage, I would have to make my home with the family of my husband. For my dowry I began to embroider a quilt, making all my worries stitches, and all the things I would have to leave behind pictures to take with me.

I embroidered my maa in her green sari and my baap on the bicycle that took him to the marketplace every morning. My brothers played at soccer with a ball they had fashioned from old rags. I added the feathery leaves of the tamarind tree that stood in the middle of our courtyard and our cow under its shade. I put in the sun that beat down on the courtyard and the clouds that gathered before the rains. I put myself at the courtyard well, where I was sent many times each day to get water. I stitched the marketplace stalls heaped with turmeric and cinnamon and cumin and mustard. I embroidered vegetable stalls with purple eggplants and green melons. I made the barber cutting hair, the dentist pulling teeth, the man who cleaned ears, and the man with the basket of cobras. Because I was kept busy at all my other tasks, the stitching took many weeks.

While I stitched, I wondered what my husband would be like. Stories were told of girls having to marry old men, but I did not think Maa and Baap would let that happen to me. In my daydreams I hoped for someone who was handsome and who would be kind to me.

My older brother said, "We're too poor to buy you a decent husband."

My younger brother said, "There is sure to be something wrong with anyone who agrees to marry you."

Reading Group Guide


Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan's moving look at Indian culture and one girl's struggle to find her place in it, provides a distinctly different perspective on growing up than the one we experience in the United States. Like many girls her age in India, thirteen-year-old Koly is getting married. But her excitement and hope turn to dread when she meets her husband, a sickly boy who is much younger than Koly and her family were led to believe. When her new husband dies, Koly must take on the only identity allowed her by society--that of a widow. Faced with a lifetime of subservience, poverty, and isolation, Koly realizes how alone she is. Yet this rare young woman, bewildered and brave, sets out to forge her own exceptional future. And a new life, like a beautiful tapestry, comes together for Koly--one stitch at a time.

Questions For Discussion:

  1. Koly ends up in a series of unfortunate situations. Who can be blamed for her misfortune? Her parents? The Mehtas? Society? Koly herself? Or, do all these factors work together to influence her life? Is it possible to root out one cause for Koly's misfortune? Conversely, who can be credited for the good turn Koly's life eventually takes?
  2. In Koly's society in India, life is highly defined from beginning to end. How does this compare to life in the United States? Can you say the same for all the different groups in the United States (i.e. religious, ethnic, regional)?
  3. In India, young girls are expected to marry. How does this affect their families treatment of them? What do the families gain from a good marriage? How is Koly affected by this expectation to marry? Howwould your life be different if you were expected to marry in a few years?
  4. When Koly becomes a widow, she takes on a specific, rigidly defined role in society. What does being a widow mean for Koly? In what ways does this role restrict her? In what ways does it set her free?
  5. The ability to read takes on a great importance for Koly. Why is she originally kept from learning to read? Why does Sassur agree to teach her? What effect does it have on the rest of her life?
  6. Discuss the different bird images that are used throughout the book. What traits do birds have that make them particularly appropriate for Koly's story? Why does she relate to the homeless bird?
  7. Like all the women in her family, Koly learns to embroider quilts and saris. As she explains, "All [the women's] thoughts and dreams went into their work because it took so long, each sari became a part of our lives." Discuss the ways in which Koly's life and her embroidery become interwoven. Is there a way you express your thoughts and dreams about life, for example, through singing, participating in sports or writing?
  8. Does Koly believe that Sass will find happiness? Why or why not? Why do you think that Koly was able to find happiness at the end of the book? What makes Koly different from Sass in this respect? What does it mean to be truly wealthy?
  9. Animals become very important to Koly after she becomes a widow. What animals does she befriend while she is living with Mehtas? Why does she tame these various animals? Find examples of Koly making comparisons between animals and the people she meets. How do these examples fit with Koly's past experiences and with her perceptions of herself?
  10. Does Koly believe that Sass will find happiness? Why or why not? Why do you think that Koly was able to find happiness at the end of the book? What makes Koly different from Sass in this respect? What does it mean to be truly wealthy?
  11. Koly grew up in a very rural area, but environments differ? Which does Koly prefer? What might have happened to Koly if her Sass had not left her at Vrindavan?
  12. Who are Koly's true friends? Were there people she should have been able to depend on but couldn't?

About The Author:

Gloria Whelan is a poet and awarding who has written many books for young readers. One of these, Once On This Island, won the 1996 Great Lakes Book Award. She lives with her husband, Joseph, in the woods of northern Michigan.

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Homeless Bird 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 140 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book back when I was in 7th grade and I say, it is the best book I have ever read in my life! I completely recommend it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
100% Perfect....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A heart-warming thriller that I enjoyed reading, the only draw-back is that it was so short! There should be a seaqual! (F.Y.I., for the people who get confused with the ocasional hibrew words, look in the back of the book it tells you what they mean; to be honest with you, I would put that in front, but whatever it's still the best book ever!)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a treat to read! It was exciting and filled with love and adventure. It kept you on your toes the entire time and I was happy to read it in one sitting. An easy read and very educational. I recommend to everyone! Especially to those who have interests in different cultures.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this when I was a kid, and I have always loved it! I kept checking it out of the library! I am so glad I found it, I had to search google with the description! I recommend this book completely!
pumpkinpieCS More than 1 year ago
My daughter had to weeks to read this book for her 6th grade summer reading assignment. She thought it would be horrible and boring. Needless to say she read the book in 2days!...she couldn't put it down! She loved it and would like a Part II :-)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book sooooooooooooooooo much!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book so much! It is well writen and the plot is well developed, interesting, and very entertaining. I have read it too many times to count! I highly suggest reading this book. You are a very messed up person if ou don't like this book (sorry, but it is true).
sshadoan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful, simple prose and a realistic and strong heroine. Love it!
mburris1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Young Koly has truly had misfortune heaped upon her. Because of her family's economic situation, she has to marry at the age of 13 in order for her family to have enough food to survive. When they arrive at the bridegroom's house, they discover that certain things have been kept from them about the boy she is to marry. This foreboding beginning sets the tone for the entire book. Just when you think nothing worse can happen to Koly, something else does. It is a book you can't put down until you see how things turn out for Koly.In addition to this being one of the most popular books my 5th graders read all year, one of the things I like about it is that Gloria Whelan based this book on actual events. She read an article in the New York Times about a woman in India who travels much the same path as Koly, making it even more heartbreaking and poignant. It is hard to imagine that such a thing could happen in this day and age, making it all the more fascinating to read about.
maya697 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Awesome! I LOVE this book!
JanaRose1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At the age of thirteen, Koly¿s family arranges a marriage for her. Tricked by her in-laws for her dowry, she is married to Hari, a young boy suffering from tuberculosis. Despite a pilgrimage to Varanasi to bathe in the sacred Gange River, Hari passes away, leaving her a widow at the mercy of her mother-in-law. A cruel woman, her mother-in-law criticizes everything Koly does, leaving Koly unhappy and trapped in a hopeless situation. Her mother-in-law then abandons Koly in Vrindavan, a city of windows. Koly¿s story is one of tragedy and strength. Despite her untenable situation, she is able to survive, and even thrive on her own, something unheard of in India.
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This YA book provides a snapshot of Indian culture, rich in beauty, conversely with a stark dark side of some traditions that are abhorrent.When young 13 year old Koly's poverty stricken parents arrange a marriage with a young man whom they have never met, Koly's fate seems sealed to a life of cruelty and abuse.Married to a sickly, spindly, nasty younger boy who has TB, Koly soon learns the deceit of her new family and in addition is gravely mistreated by her mother in law.When, shortly after the arranged marriage, the young boy dies, Koly is blatantly reminded that there is no responsibility by the boy's parents to take care of her.Using her dowry for a last desperate effort, the trip taken by his parents to the Ganges river for healing of the young man merely hastens his death.After her mother in law arranges a widow's pension for Koly, the money is stolen each month. Koly is unable to support herself when shortly after the death of their son, she is deserted in a Holy city filled with widows who are young girls and older women are also deserted and cast aside by the families who stole their assets.Unable to bring shame on her family, Koly cannot return to her biological parents.Penniless, hungry and destitute, Koly sleeps on the streets and begs for food.When she meets a young man who assists her, she is taken to a home supported by a rich woman who helps widows. There she learns a trade and gains independence.After reading this book, I realize I need to learn more of the Indian culture to discern if the author carefully researched her facts.
amusingmother on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Supposedly a quick little read, I found myself taking my time in understanding a culture where females are only as good as their dowry. Once the in-laws are poor again, it may become necessary to lose the daughter in law for a new dowry. If she becomes a widow, the widow's check is not seen by the widow but the in-laws. She is stuck.Author paints a poignant and rather depressing picture of the women/girls of India, even in the highest class.On a personal note, I understand better why my Asian Indian sister-in-law, orphaned young, was still single when my brother found her and married her.He required no dowry.
mcrotti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Homeless Bird follows Koly, a 13 year old Indian girl experiencing a traditional arranged marriage. When the arrangements go awry and her sickly young husband dies, Koly is left to fend for herself as a widow. She experiences many setbacks, but eventually becomes self-sufficient, triumphing over the odds for girls in her situation. Koly defies cultural expectations by learning to read, finding an embroidery job for herself, and eventually marrying again to a man of her choosing.This book gives pre-teen readers a glimpse into traditional Indian culture. Many Hindi words are used (and defined in a glossary at the end of the book). Young girls especially will enjoy and feel empowered by Koly's refusal to adhere to the roles that are assigned to her. Libraries could use this book in a pre-teen book club, especially if it is female-oriented. Young female readers can learn about traditions of another culture while simultaneously receiving empowering messages about strength and perseverance.
NMkimdykstra on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Personal Response:This was a great book. I listened to the audio version in my car and I was eager to get in the car to hear what happened next with this story. I have already recommended this book to some adults friends and will be sharing this book with students when school starts.School/Classroom Uses:I would love to do a book discussion group with middle school aged girls using this book. This could be done in a school library, classroom, or public library.
YAbookfest on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Travel to India and meet Koly. Her family is so poor they arrange a marriage for her at the age of 13, hoping it will make life better for them all. But the boy she weds is seriously ill and Koly is soon widowed. In keeping with Indian tradition, Koly lives on with her in-laws where she is tossed between kindness and cruelty. Ultimately, she finds herself facing the plight of many Indian widows, outcast and homeless. Through her own courage, talent, and resourcefulness, Koly forges a future for herself.Beautifully written, this book is engaging, touching and memorable. It is appropriate for middle school students and those interested in learning about India. For older students, it could be a springboard for human rights research and discussions.
SadieReads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is Koly's story about being married and widowed at thirteen, being abandoned in a large city, and surviving with the help of kind friends. Koly lives in India in a working-class family who marries her off to a family whom they believe will take care of her. Koly finds herself married to a boy not much older than she, who is very sick. His family lied to hers about his age and health
dahabdabbler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The descriptions brought back vivid memories of my time in India, and my favorite city of Varanasi. Although the story has a happy ending, the events in Koly's life may be depressing for outsiders to read about. However, Koly's spirit and her determination not to bring shame on her family are realistic. Koly finds peace in knowing that she does what is expected and what would make her family proud, and this is part of her culture. This would be a very eye-opening read for American students. It would be a challenge for some students to read this without judging, but knowing and understanding is the first step to acceptance. Students would learn a great deal about India and Hinduism and I imagine this book may lead to very interesting personal inquiry projects. In a diverse classroom, this book would also lead to a discussion of the differences between cultural practices of marriage, language, widowhood, art, and careers. By looking closely at another's culture, we come to better understand our own. A great connection would be to read the picture book Amal and the letter from the King written by Chitra Gajadin and Helen Ong. This book is written in both Bengali and English and is based on a play written by Rabindrath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian author talked about in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
“Koly you are thirteen and growing everyday. Maa said to me. It’s time for you to have a husband” (Whelan 1). In the book Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan the main character Koly is forced to get married with an arranged marriage by her parents to someone she has never met. For being a family of five in India, money is an issue. The book Homeless Bird shows all the difficult challenges women in India had to face during this time period. Koly has to learn how to adapt to a new family and the way they live. With hardships coming her way she has no choice but to persevere and keep going. This book teaches the reader about women’s rights and cultural beliefs in India and how to be persistent when times become tough. Homeless Bird is a fictional book that talks about women’s rights in India. It describes women’s rights through the story of Koly having an arranged marriage. In the story it follows Koly starting at a young age then brings readers into her housewife years. Being a girl in India means having a short amount of time with your family and then normally having an arranged marriage at a young age, like Koly has one at age thirteen. Before a wedding the girl has to make a dowry for their mother in law “Sass” and father in law “Sassur”. Once the daughter is married she must stay with her new family forever, she will be disowned from her birth family if she choose to try to go back to them. Being a married women in India every wife must live under their husbands roof with his commands and rules. If at any moment the wife decides not to follow her husband’s rules they may leave their wife with nothing to live off of. In India girls do not have the same rights as boys. Girls stay at home, have to obey men, and are not allowed to go to school. Instead girls mostly remain at home and do housework. “I had begged my mom to go, promising I would get up early and stay up late to do my work, but Maa said school was a waste for girls” (Whelan 2). Koly’s Maa thinks school would be no use for her once she gets married. As well as having very little money to live off of since Koly’s dad is the only member in the family getting paid, they would not have enough money to send her school along with her two brothers. In India a traditional greeting is by bowing down to someone and touching their feet to show them respect. “I bowed down and touched her feet.” (Whelan 12). By bowing down means to live a long life filled with fortune and wisdom. Later on in the text it shows some challenges Koly has to face, some of which are not easy to solve. The cultural beliefs, women’s rights and hardships certainly teach the reader about India’s history. The theme of persevering through tough situations makes readers want to read more. Homeless Bird is a fascinating book that informs the reader of cultural beliefs in India. As well as learning about very little women rights they had. And realizing to persevere through any hard situations. “When Sassur came in to tell me of Hari’s death, I would not listen. He sat down beside and put a hand on my shoulder” (Whelan 45). The challenges Koly has to face are very emotional and even make the reader feel bad for her. Some hardships she had in the book were very descriptive and helped readers imagine as if you were in the story. “She dusted my face with golden turmeric powder, and with a paste of sandalwood and vermilion painted the red tikka mark on my forehead. My eyes were outlined with kohl. My lips and chee
ewyatt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Koly is in her early teens when she is married. Unfortunately her husband is very sick and dies soon after the marriage. Because of the culture, Koly is stuck with her in-laws. After her father in-law dies and Koly's mother-in-law has abandoned her in a city for widows, Koly must figure out how to fend for herself and build a meaningful life. WOW! It's hard to imagine being a young teen (she's 13) and going through all that! Powerful look at another culture.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Even though it is a young adult book, it is a beautiful and heart wrenching story of a 13 year old bride, and then a widow, set in contemporary India. It received a National Book Award and has been rightfully praised in many book reviews. ¿Graceful and evocative.¿ says The New York Times Book Review.I heartily recommend it to everybody.
Hamburgerclan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a tale of a young girl from a traditional Indian family, Koly, who is subjected to an arranged marriage. (What date this story is set, I don't know. I'm assuming it's a modern day setting as the book mentions color photographs and computers) As you might guess from the title, it doesn't quite work out very well. How it doesn't work out, I won't reveal. It was an interesting tale, well worth checking out. The characters are done quite well, with a bit of depth to them. Koly especially is likable--I couldn't do anything but root for her as she faced the challenges ahead of her. I think the book also does a fine job of respecting the traditional culture. Ms. Whelan doesn't hesitate to point out its failings, but neither does she present it at as some horrible monstrosity which smothers any possibility of happiness. 'Twas well done.--J.
nwhite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story, like the exquisite embroidery of young Koly -- an Indain girl of just 13 years, will weave its way into readers¿ hearts. Despite her intense desire to stay with her family, Koly agrees, as is the custom for girls her age, to be married and move in with her in-laws so that her poor family might have a little more to share. When the marriage ends shortly in the death of her young husband, a series of events manipulated by her mother-in-law leaves young Koly alone and destitute in a large city where widows must beg for food. Her will combined with the embroidery skills she picked up from her mother, reading skills learned from her father-in-law and a lot of help from her friends leads this child away from her certain destiny for solitude and indignity to a life she can call her own. Inspiring and informative of Indian culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though this book is relatively short, do not underestimate it. The story will keep you on the edge of your seat with plenty of suspence and fun characters. I would highly recommend this book for readers ages 8 and up!